Research Projects

My principal research project is The Letters of William Godwin, which is being published in six volumes by Oxford University Press. I am the General Editor and the principal Volume Editor. The edition will provide authoritative, fully annotated texts of all known surviving letters from Godwin, and a selection of previously unpublished letters to him. It will include about 1500 items, of which only a quarter have been published before. Volume I: 1778-1797, edited by me, was published in 2011; Volume II: 1798-1805, also edited by me, was published in 2014. Volume III: 1806-1815, is being edited by M. O. Grenby. I am currently working on Volume IV: 1816-1828.

William Godwin (1756-1836) was a radical political philosopher, novelist, and social thinker of the British Enlightenment. He was the author of An Enquiry concerning Political Justice (1793), a founding text of philosophical anarchism, and of Caleb Williams (1794), one of the great novels of the 18th century. He also wrote five more full-length novels, works of educational theory, children’s books, plays, philosophical biographies, essays, political pamphlets—and a four-volume History of the Commonwealth of England (1824-8). He was the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, the early advocate of women’s rights, and then of Mary Jane Godwin, a translator and editor of children’s books; the father of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (1818); and the father-in-law of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Sociable on principle as well as by disposition, Godwin knew or corresponded with almost everyone of note on the political left from the era of the French Revolution (1789) to that of the Great Reform Bill (1832)—including nearly all the major literary figures of the Romantic era. His life is as intriguing as his works. His greatest impact was in the debates following the French Revolution, but his influence has been through several revivals since then, and is currently surging again among scholars and political activists.

Godwin’s letters, in Kenneth R. Johnston’s phrase, ‘radiate moral philosophy in action’. They occupy a significant place in his debates about ethics and politics, and show him to be committed to candid enquiry and debate in practice as well as in theory. Godwin appears a more complex figure than his published writings suggest. He was not an inflexible rationalist who was unable to form a just estimate of the affections, but was always reassessing his ideas of what it meant to be human. He was a man of strong feelings who reflected intensively on his own experiences (notably, his love and loss of Mary Wollstonecraft). His diligence in preserving copies of his letters after 1795 indicates his awareness of their importance for posterity. Like his diary, the letters provide insight into the self-understanding and self-presentation of a radical intellectual, and may ultimately prove more significant for interpreting Godwin than his published works.

I continue to research and occasionally to publish in some of my previous areas of interest. These include the 1790s (with a special interest in Elizabeth Inchbald and Charlotte Smith), Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, the Wollstonecraft diaspora, and the political novel (broadly conceived).

A new area of active interest is the letters, journals, and diaries of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This interest has grown out of my work on Godwin’s private papers, but ranges much more widely.